Shadow of a Doubt, 1943, 108 mins, 4K UHD
Alfred Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt takes place in 1940s Santa Rosa, a leafy town that seems the very definition of Americana – its the America of Twilight Zone‘s Walking Distance, or Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes. Its decent, law-abiding folk who all know each other’s names, its lush lawns, rocking chairs on sun-sheltered porches, gleaming cars, a town library that stays open until nine p.m., police that don’t need guns. Maybe this community of decency and calm never really existed- David Lynch’s Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks both suggested dark secrets hidden behind that entertainment-industry façade of American suburbia, but surprise, surprise, it would seem Alfred Hitchcock got there decades before, albeit Hitch was much more reserved than the subversive Lynch would later be.
Into the perfect American Dream of Santa Rosa arrives Uncle Charlie (Joseph Cotten), visiting his elder sister’s family, the Newtons, for the first time in many years. His niece Charlotte “Charlie” Newton (Theresa Wright) is bored with her perfect quiet life with her parents and younger brother and sister, and finds her well-travelled, charming and world-savvy uncle as exciting as she hoped him to be. She sees a kindred spirit sharing her wayward desire for adventure, but slowly as events unfold she begins to wonder if they are really alike at all, and what might lie behind some of his occasionally odd behaviour. Wright is really excellent here; she rather reminded me of Donna Reed, a pretty, wholesome American gal: she’s charming and quite captivating but also handles her descent into terror very well; if Charlotte had allowed herself to become seduced by her uncles’ darkness I can imagine she’d be quite compelling as a corrupted dark angel. Curiously Wright is a brunette, Hitchcock perhaps not yet succumbing to his later fascination with blondes.
Shadow of a Doubt has all sorts of subtext. In some ways its as simple as the snake in the garden of Eden, innocence tempted by the corruption of evil, or an example of American goodness being betrayed by the enemy within, a common theme of many film noir during the war and the Red Menace scares of the 1950s. Hitchcock, of course, loved the idea of hidden evil and danger -and its easy to discern in Uncle Charlie a prototype for mild-looking Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) in Psycho. Indeed, Joseph Cotten is so good in this film he rather overshadows Perkins in that later film; ultimately, Bates was explained away as being crazy, but Uncle Charlie is calm, self-assured evil, and feels more real, more genuine.
There is always something clearly ‘off’ regards Uncle Charlie, right from when we first see him resignedly relaxing in an lodging house whilst being watched/hunted by two mysterious men. He smartly evades their pursuit and flees to Santa Rosa, but what has he done, who are these pursuers? One might suspect that he is innocent, threatened by criminals, but there is that shade of darkness about him that suggests otherwise. Once in his sisters home he charms the family and indeed the Santa Rosa community at large, but there is an undercurrent of mockery in his manner, which his niece quickly picks up on but initially assumes is the wisdom of his experience living in that big, exciting world outside that which she knows. Hitchcock seems to revel in wising the young girl to the reality of the world beyond the American Dream : “You’re a sleepwalker, blind,” Cotten tells her. “How do you know what the world is like? Do you know the world is a foul sty? Do you know, if you rip off the fronts of houses, you’d find swine? The world’s a hell. What does it matter what happens in it? Wake up, Charlie. Use your wits. Learn something!” It could be a speech from one of Lynch’s films, or a manifesto for America to wake up to the Nazi menace in Europe.
Cotten is excellent- his natural persona is that of a good guy, similar to that of someone from our own era like Tom Hanks, so it is doubly unnerving to sense the darkness behind the disarming smile and twinkling eyes. I’m rather surprised he didn’t become an Hitchcock regular; I think Hitchcock loved bad guys who could be your neighbour, and Cotten serves that to a tee.
And of course typical of Hitchcock, there are nice, self-aware touches in Shadow of a Doubt, such Charlotte’s father Joseph’s conversations with his best friend and neighbour Herbie, who shares his love of lurid detective and crime pulps/novels and their conversations about the best ways to murder someone, both ignorant of a murderer living under Joseph’s own roof.
I really enjoyed Shadow of a Doubt– while it isn’t amongst Hitchcock’s very best films (its far removed from work like Vertigo), I’m not entirely surprised to have later discovered that it was said to be Hitchcock’s personal favourite. There is certainly a great cast playing well-defined and entertaining characters, a sharp script, some wonderful cinematography (literally there are shadows everywhere); in its own way, its a perfect little movie, and if it feels dated, that’s maybe because of the world we are living in.
Of course one of its biggest draws must be its magical visualisation of the American Dream and that idyllic America that may or may not have actually existed outside of Bradbury’s fictional Green Town, Illinois. If it did actually exist, then this film is a potent picture of a paradise lost, and leaves me wondering what Lynch’s Twin Peaks might have been like had he considered giving it a period setting. But in any case, I can easily see what so appealed to Hitchcock about it, and can imagine that back when the film originally played in 1943, it could have seemed rather scandalous to many.